Biography of Cesar E. Chavez: (1927 â€“ 1993)
Cesar E. Chavez was a Mexican-American farm worker who became a great force as a union leader, civil rights leader, environmentalist, and humanitarian. With courage, sacrifice, and hope, he provided service to others and dedicated his life to bring justice, dignity, and respect to farm workers and to poor people everywhere. He worked to improve the lives of farm workers and he helped lead the United Farm Workers to victory in their fight for better working and living conditions. He led a nonviolent social movement to bring about change and to demand civil rights. His efforts against the use of harmful pesticides gained the support of citizens across the State of California and throughout the United States. He inspired millions of people to work and support his efforts for social change and justice. He received numerous honors for his work including the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, the highest honor awarded to a civilian, and the creation of a holiday and day of service and learning by the State of California and other states and cities.
“Our mother used to say there is a difference between being of service and being a servantï¿½mother taught us not to be afraid to fight—to stand up for our rights. But she also taught us not to be violent.” Cesar E. Chavez
Cesar was born in 1927 on a small farm near Yuma, Arizona, to Librado and Juana Chavez. He was one of six children. His grandparents had come to the United States in the 1880’s to escape the poverty of Mexico. As a child, Cesar was influenced by his mother and grandmother who taught him about kindness, feeding the hungry, and nonviolence. They also gave him a deep sense of spiritual faith. His father taught him to be a man of action that stood up for others. In 1937, during the Great Depression, Cesar was ten years old when his family lost their land in Arizona. The family was forced to join the 30,000 migrant farm workers that traveled throughout California looking for work harvesting food in the fields.
Life as a Farm Worker
“We draw our strength from the very despair in which we find we have been forced to live. We shall endure.” Cesar E. Chavez
For ten years, Cesar’s family traveled as migrant farm workers in California looking for work harvesting crops in the fields. They moved from town to town in order to find work. Once they found work, they had to rent run-down shacks with no heat or water from the growers who owned the land. There was no running water, no bathroom, only one gas burner to cook on, and unbearable heat. There were so many farm workers looking for work that the growers could treat them however they wanted. Pickers had to bend over all day. Many crops had been dusted with poisons to kill insects. The poison made some workers sick. They worked long hours and were not always paid what they had been promised. Since most workers could not speak English, they could not argue. If the workers complained, the growers would fire them.
The Chavez family worked long hours in the fields, from 5:00 am until sunset, and were paid so little they often did not have enough money to buy food. Cesar lived in the poverty shared by thousands of migrant farm worker families, and later said that the suffering made him strong.
The Pain of Prejudice
Cesar experienced the pain of prejudice as a small child in Arizona and later in California. Cesar spoke only Spanish as a child, and the children at school would make fun of his accent and call him a “dirty Mexican.” Teachers would hit him with rulers if he spoke Spanish in school. In California, a teacher made him wear a sign around his neck, which read, “I’m a clown. I speak Spanish.” When he was ten, he tried to buy a hamburger at a diner with a sign that read “white trade only.” The girl behind the counter laughed at him and told him that they didn’t serve Mexicans. Cesar felt the pain of being treated unfairly just because he was different. This pain stayed with him his entire life, and as an adult the pain shaped his commitment to make all people feel as if they were worthy human beings no matter what their background might be.
Cesar Forced to Leave School
“There is so much human potential wasted by poverty, so many children are forced to quit school and go to work.” Cesar E. Chavez
In 1942, when Cesar was in eighth grade, his father was injured in a car accident and Cesar quit school in order to work in the fields with his brother and sister. By the time he dropped out of school, he had attended more than 30 schools. Since migrant students did not stay long in one place and couldn’t speak much English, they had a hard time in school. Cesar did not want his mother to have to work. Working in the fields was very difficult. The growers demanded that farm workers use the short-handled hoe, so that workers could be close to the ground while thinning the plants; this hoe caused severe back pain. Often there was no clean water to drink or bathrooms for the farm workers to use and they had to work around dangerous pesticides.
Cesar worked long hours and felt that the growers treated farm workers without dignity, as if they were not human beings. He knew this was not right. As Cesar learned English he could speak with non-Latino workers, and, from them he found out which farms paid best, where housing was better, and where the owners did not cheat the workers. He told other Mexican
American families what he learned so they would not suffer as he and his family had. He tried to persuade them to go together to the farm owners and ask for more pay and better housing. Most workers turned him down, afraid they would lose their jobs.
Cesar Joins the Navy
In 1944, Cesar joined the United States Navy and served overseas for two years. While in the Navy, he witnessed that other people suffered the pain of prejudice because they spoke different languages or were of different heritages. After the war, when he returned from the Navy, he returned to California to help his family work in the fields. He found that migrant workers’ lives had not changed.
In 1948, when Cesar was twenty-one years old, he married Helen Fabela. He had met Helen when he was 15. She, too, worked in the fields. They moved to San Jose, California where Cesar worked in apricot orchards and a lumberyard. They lived in a barrio called “Sal Si Puedes” in Spanish. In English this means “get out if you can.” Together, Cesar and Helen had eight children. Helen became an important partner with Cesar as he began to fulfill his dream of improving the lives of farm workers.
A New Life of Service
“My motivation to change these injustices came from my personal life ï¿½ from watching what my mother and father went through when I was growing up; from what we experienced as migrant farm workers in California.” Cesar E. Chavez
In 1948, Cesar met people and read books that would change his life forever. He met Father McDonnell who spoke to César about solving the poverty and unjust treatment of the farm worker. He asked César to read books on labor history, St Francis of Assisi, and Luis Fisher’s Life of Gandhi. From these books, Cesar learned about the history of unions, nonviolence, sacrificing to help others, and social change, and these ideas reminded him of his family’s teachings. Cesar said that it was at this time in his life when his real education began. In 1952, Cesar met Fred Ross, who worked for the Community Service Organization, (CSO). Fred Ross explained how people who lived in poverty could begin to help themselves. César went to work for the CSO and registered many Latino voters. Cesar became the Director of the CSO in California. In Oxnard, California, Cesar helped farm workers regain their jobs, but they soon lost their jobs again. Cesar knew that the farm workers needed to organize themselves and become a collective force in order to protect their rights. The CSO did not want to organize farm workers, so Cesar quit the CSO, moved his family to Delano, and began organizing farm workers there.
The United Farm Workers
“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest fruits and vegetables and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.” Cesar E. Chavez
In 1962, Cesar and his wife Helen moved with their children to Delano, California, in order to organize farm workers. Cesar worked for three years recruiting and teaching farm workers how to solve their problems. Since César did not earn much money while organizing farm workers, Helen worked picking grapes to support the family. The farm workers grew to trust Cesar and many decided to join his union. In 11 months, he visited 87 communities and held many gatherings to get workers to join the union. When 300 members were signed up, he called a meeting. If each family paid a small amount, he said, the union could open grocery stores, drugstores, and gas stations where workers could buy things that were less expensive tan the same things in other stores. It could hire lawyers to represent them; it could even lend money. He wanted all activities to be nonviolent, and he took no pay while working long hours. Food and clothing for his family came from donations. Cesar needed help and asked people to join him in Delano to help him organize and to become leaders in the union. These people came and worked without pay, and were fed by farm workers. Farm workers had no laws to protect them. Unscrupulous growers could pay them as little as they liked; they could make them work long hours without rest breaks, with no water to drink, or toilets. In 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) was born. It would later become known as the United Farm Workers (UFW). Cesar E. Chavez was elected president, Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla, vice-presidents, and Antonio Orendain, secretary-treasurer. The union adopted a flag that had a black eagle which represented the dark situation the farm worker found himself in, a white circle that signified hope, and a red background which represented the sacrifice and work the UFW would have to suffer in order to gain justice. Their official slogan was “Viva La Causa” (Long Live our Cause). Cesar wanted to build a strong union that could fight for social justice.
The Famous Delano Grape Strike
“When you have people together that believe in something very strongly, whether it be politics, unions or religion — things happen.” Cesar E. Chavez
In 1965, Cesar and the NFWA joined the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a Filipino farm worker organization, in the famous Delano Grape Strike. The two organizations targeted the Schenley Industry, the Di Giorgio Corporation, S&W Fine Foods, and Treesweet, all organizations (“growers”) who grew crops in the fertile fields of California and employed thousands of farm workers. The strikers wanted contracts that would force the growers to follow certain rules regarding hiring, better working conditions, better pay, and control of pesticides. They also wanted the growers to give them respect and dignity in the fields. The growers did not want to spend money on the improvements nor did they want to give the workers power, so the growers fought the strike. The two farm worker organizations joined to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). When UFWOC went on strike, the members refused to work and they picketed the fields with signs and flags trying to get other workers in the fields to join the strike. The growers brought in strikebreakers to harass the picketers, sprayed the picketers with pesticides, and used shotguns and dogs to frighten them. Most of the strikers remained on the picket lines, and César reminded them constantly that they were not to use violence of any kind. Cesar said that nonviolence was more powerful than violence, and that it was the only way to win peace and justice. Cesar taught the union members how to react and act peacefully, even when the growers used violence against the strikers. Cesar had studied Gandhi’s use of the power of nonviolence in his struggle for social justice in India, and Cesar deeply believed that the strike would have to be one of nonviolence if they were to win.
“There is no turning back. We are winning because ours is a revolution of the mind and the heart.” Cesar E. Chavez
Hundreds of people of all cultures, backgrounds, and religions came to Delano to help with the grape strike. Many churches of all different faiths supported the strike. Cesar thought that all religions were very important and he welcomed their support. The national media (television crews, news papers reporters, and writers for magazines) covered the use of violence by the growers against the nonviolent striking farm workers. NBC aired a documentary called “The Harvest of Shame” that showed how farm workers were forced to live in poverty. Millions of Americans and political leaders saw that Cesar was fighting for the justice that America promises all of its citizens. Other labor unions supported the strike. Cesar called for a national boycott of grapes. During a boycott the growers lose money because people stop buying the food that the growers sell in the supermarkets. Eventually the growers were forced to negotiate with the farm workers. Cesar believed that the American people had a sense of justice and he was right. Millions of Americans supported the boycott and stopped buying grapes because they understood the injustices that the farm workers suffered.
“There is enough love and good will in our movement to give energy to our struggle and still have plenty left over to break down and change the climate of hate and fear around us.” Cesar E. Chavez
In 1966, Cesar organized a 350-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, California, in order to get support for the strike from the public, other farm workers and the Governor. Although Cesar’s feet were swollen and bleeding, he continued to march. When the march reached Stockton, it had grown to 5,000 marchers, it was then that the growers contacted Cesar and agreed to recognize the union and sign a labor contract that would promise better working conditions and higher wages. This was the first contract ever signed between growers and a farm worker’s union in the history of the United States, but Cesar’s work had just begun.
Cesar’s First Fast
“The fast is a very personal and spiritual thing, and it is not done out of recklessness. It’s not done out of a desire to destroy yourself, but it is done out of a deep conviction that we can communicate with people, either those that are for us or against us, faster and more effectively spiritually than any other way.” Cesar E. Chavez
In 1968, Cesar went on the first of three public “fasts” to protest the violence that was being used on both sides of the strike. When Cesar fasted, he would stop eating in order to gain spiritual strength and communicate with people on a spiritual level. People from all over the United States felt the importance of his fasts; his quiet sacrifice spoke to many people about the injustice that existed for farm workers. In 1968, when he ended his fast, 8,000 people including Robert Kennedy were there to support him. The media would cover his fasts and he would receive letters of support from politicians, religious leaders, and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
Four More Years of Striking
“Our struggle is not easy. Those that oppose our cause are rich and powerful, and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our own bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons.” Cesar E. Chávez
Cesar had won his first contract, but there were still many growers in California who had not recognized the UFW, (formerly the UFWOC) and for the next four years, the union continued to nonviolently strike against the growers. The UFW continued to grow in strength because of the national boycott. It also grew because Cesar built a national coalition of students, consumers, trade unionists, religious groups, and minorities. Cesar’s quiet dedication and sacrifice had inspired many to help the UFW. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent Cesar a telegram stating that he and César were united because they both had the same dream for a better tomorrow. By 1970, 85% of all the grape growers in California had signed contracts with the UFW. Cesar E. Chavez, a gentle man of vision, had worked to revolutionize the relationship between growers and farm workers. He had started a nonviolent movement that demanded civil rights and economic justice for all people.
“You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
From 1970-1980, César and the UFW continued to boycott and strike for farm workers’ rights and the control of dangerous pesticides that are sprayed on crops. Although César won many victories, the struggle for justice, fair treatment, respect, and dignity were always in jeopardy. However, César never gave up. He kept working and had faith that people united could create a better world. In 1975, due to César’s efforts, the Supreme Court outlawed the short-handled hoe that had injured the backs of thousands of farm workers who were forced to use it. In June of 1975, the UFW sponsored a farm-labor law with the support of growers. Governor Brown signed into law the Agricultural Labor Relations Act that gave farm workers the right to organize a union and to hold elections. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act remains the strongest law nationwide protecting the rights of farm workers. By 1978, the union had 100,000 members and had won a contract with the largest lettuce grower in the United States. In the 1980s, Cesar traveled to the Midwest and the eastern states in order to teach people about the dangers of the pesticides being sprayed on crops. The pesticides caused cancer and birth defects in the children of farm workers. In 1988, Cesar conducted a 36-day “fast for life” to draw attention to the harmful effects of pesticides. Thousands of people supported him by continuing his “fast for life” in 3-day contributions that were passed on from one person to another. In the end, the growers listened to his concerns and began reviewing their use of pesticides. The State of California also revised its use of pesticides because of his efforts. In the 1990s, Cesar recovered from his fast and continued to boycott of grapes. In 1992, he received an honorary Doctorate Degree from Arizona State University and attended graduation ceremonies. He was very proud of the honor because he believed that education is very important, and his dream was that all children should have the opportunity to get a quality education.
Cesar E. Chavez worked right up until the night he died peacefully in his sleep. He died at the age of 66, on April 23, 1993 in San Luis, Arizona. He was in Arizona helping lawyers fight a lawsuit against the UFW. His funeral was held on April 29, 1993 in Delano, California, and more than 40,000 mourners came to honor him. It was their last opportunity to march with a humble man of great strength and vision that had bettered the lives of many people.
“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the person who is not afraid anymore. We have looked into the future and the future is ours.” Cesar E. Chavez
Cesar E. Chavez will be remembered as a leader and for his dedication to justice, nonviolence, and service to others. He is an American hero who will continue to inspire people to respect life, stand up for justice, and to work together for the good of humanity. Senator Robert F. Kennedy noted that Cesar Chavez was “one of the heroic figures of our time.”
The State of California has declared Cesar E. Chavez’s birthday, March 31, a State Holiday to celebrate his life and work, along with eight other states (AZ, CA, CO, MI, NM, TX, UT, WI) and dozens of cities and counties. In 1994, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Cesar E. Chavez the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, the highest civilian award. Clinton said that Chavez “faced formidable, often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence.” Helen Chavez accepted the honor at the White House in Washington, DC. In 1990, Cesar was awarded the Aguila Azteca, the highest civilian award by the Mexican government. Many schools and streets are also named to honor the legacy of Cesar E. Chavez.
Griswold del Castillo, Richard and Richard A. Garcia. César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Fight in the Fields Jacques E. Levy, César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa Gloria D. Miklowitz, Betrayal in the House of Delgado, 2001.
Search: Cesar Chavez Foundation